Michael Cunningham’s altered states of reality
In his new novel, the author of The Hours set out to avoid the tropes of fictional drug-taking. He talks about how Aids created new gay families, the power of three, and why he loves Joyce’s The Dead
Michael Cunningham: ‘There’s only one story about people’s relationship with drugs: that it’s foolish, that it’s about escaping from reality, and you have to stop right now.’ Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
In the mid-1990s Michael Cunningham began working on the kind of book that makes publishers smile dutifully and sigh. The story centred on three women of different generations, all connected by Virginia Woolf’s book Mrs Dalloway. One character is Woolf herself, as she descends into mental illness, and the book – The Hours – ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Nicole Kidman.
Sitting in a small, chic London hotel on a leather couch, Cunningham smiles broadly as he recounts the story. “My agent and editor said to me that this was going to be my ‘arty little book that would sell a few thousand copies’, and after submitting it, I promised them that my next one would be a commercial bestseller. But it just goes to show that you can never know what readers will go for, so you might as well write the book you want to write.”
Cunningham is tall, tanned and speaks in slow, lyrical cadences. He thinks about everything he says for a moment before answering, and as writerly a tic as this is, his artistic ambition when younger was to be a painter. The visual appealed to him, but something about the act of painting “didn’t feel right”. (He later wrote about an art dealer in his novel By Nightfall.)
“For some reason, it wasn’t holding my interest and I kept not wanting to paint. I asked myself, why is that? What’s up? So then I took a writing class. I didn’t feel especially good at it but almost immediately – and this has remained true for decades – I was bottomlessly interested in the proposition of trying to approximate life by only using ink, paper and words.”
As part of the acclaimed MFA programme at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Cunningham wrote short stories but quickly realised the form didn’t suit him. His first novel, Golden States, appeared in 1984, but it was 1990’s A Home at the End of the World that made people notice his work. (Interestingly, the book’s final chapter is actually his short story White Angel.)
Examining the latter book from the vantage point of 2014 reveals how progressive a narrative it is. It tells the story of a burgeoning friendship between two teenage boys, which becomes sexual. They are reunited years later and Bobby becomes involved with Jonathan’s flatmate Clare. It’s a complex exploration of how we define family units.